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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Obama poster pits tenant against ownership at Robie's store

By MARK HAYWARD
February 24. 2018 12:04AM
Owner Amber Enright poses beside the Obama “Hope” poster she hung in an alcove at her restaurant, Roots at Robies, in Hooksett on Friday. The preservation trust that owns the historic building wants the poster removed. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

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You grow up in Manchester, get a good education, and land a good job. The money starts flowing and you decide to abandon your old neighborhood for the suburbs.

If you’re really rich, you move to Bedford. But if you can’t afford Bedford, there’s always Hooksett.

A good place to buy a used car, a trunkload of fireworks or an AR-15. Just don’t hang up a Barack Obama poster there.

That’s the message to Josh and Amber Enright, owners of Roots Cafe, a restaurant that has transformed the dilapidated Robie’s Country Store into a trendy eatery in Hooksett Village.

The preservation trust that owns Robie’s has been pestering the Enrights, who six months ago hung up a copy of the Shepard Fairey “Hope” portrait that became the signature poster of Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Even though Robie’s operated for years as a campaign stop for presidential candidates. Even though the Robie’s interior has all sorts of campaign memorabilia on its walls (mostly Republican). Even though 3,400 Hooksett residents voted for Hillary Clinton two years ago. Obama is just too much.

“I think it’s a Republican thing,” said Roots owner Amber Enright. “They’ve told me this (poster) is un-American and he was trying to overthrow the government.”

The Robie’s Preservation Corp. was formed in 2000 and took ownership of the building, where the Robie family had operated a country store for four generations.

The landmark sits in the shadow of the Hooksett Veterans Memorial Bridge. The wood-framed building is in a flood zone, the floors tilt and the interior is stuffed with “antiques.”

A string of people have opened a store or restaurant, given it a year or two and eventually called it quits.

Delivering a lunch order to a table on Friday, Enright walks past a wall covered with historical photos. Robie’s Store has been a campaign stop for generations of politicians, and memorabilia is everywhere, though much of it features Republicans.

Enright, the daughter of veteran Manchester state representative and Democratic Party activist Jane Beaulieu, launched Roots Cafe with her husband about two years ago. She said they spent about $30,000 of their own money to upgrade the interior for their restaurant.

It’s a chalkboard type of eatery. You can get basics like a burger or fried eggs. And the menu also offers specialized fare such as roasted root-vegetable hash or a Dogwood chicken salad sandwich with apples, cranberries, walnuts and cheddar. (See today’s Scene in Manchester column for more on the food.)

Amber said the poster was a gift from a friend, former Hooksett town planner Jo Ann Duffy. Duffy said Amber asked friends for a poster because too many Republican posters hang there. (I spotted Romney, Goldwater, McCain posters and old Sununu bumper stickers. I saw one Democratic presidential campaign poster — for Johnson/Humphrey.)

“It’s part of history. Of course they should let it stay,” Duffy said about the Obama poster. “You can’t censor history.”

In fact, Obama isn’t even in the main dining area. His poster is in a small alcove off the kitchen, where a hightop table can seat three customers.

The board that governs the Robie’s Preservation Corp. isn’t saying much. Chairman Robert Schroeder didn’t return my repeated calls. (Call me, Robert, anytime weekdays at 206-7742.)

Todd Rainier, the Hooksett town clerk and a member of the Robie’s Preservation board, was polite but evasive. He said the poster has been an issue, and the board took a vote last week. He wouldn’t reveal the vote; a delegation of the board hasn’t had a chance to meet with the Enrights to discuss it.

He didn’t dispute my contention that it was a divided vote.

“My personal opinion is it’s a historical campaign poster at this point. He (Obama) is out of office; it’s a piece of history,” he said.

Rainier said the lease gives the board the ultimate say about what goes on the walls. (Enright acknowledged as much; the lease, she said, says any changes to the interior must be agreed upon.)

In the meantime, Rainier said he plans to contact the Attorney General’s office to ask if any campaign posters should be allowed to stay. Robie’s is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, and politics is normally verboten when it comes to nonprofits, he said.

Amber said a couple of customers have seen the poster and forswore Roots Cafe, but a couple hundred customers appreciate it.

Amber said she grew up in a political home — besides her mother’s political career her grandfather Emile Beaulieu was a Manchester mayor — so she’s not immune to politics. But she said she’s more a businesswoman than a politician.

She doesn’t like rocking the boat, she said, but she also doesn’t want to take it down. “Legally, it’s freedom of speech,” she said.

So far, this controversy seems to be on a long simmer.

Frank Kotkowski, who at 10 years is the senior state representative from Hooksett, didn’t know anything about the issue when I called him yesterday.

Robie’s Preservation Corp. and Roots Cafe will have to work this one out, Kotkowski said. But the Republican said it wouldn’t bother him to eat a hamburger in sight of an Obama poster. As the chairman of the House Committee on Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs, he knows what can happen once the political pot hits the boiling point.

“Sometimes,” Kotkowski said, “being too political prevents folks from getting work done.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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